Legend of Saint-Denis

Saint-Denis is one of the three patron saints of the city of Paris.

Saint-Denis, patron saint of Paris
Saint-Denis holding his head

The other two patrons are Sainte-Geneviève, who stopped Attila and his Huns from invading Paris, and Saint-Marcel, the 9th bishop of Paris.

Little is known of the life of the Greek Dyonisos, the first bishop of Lutèce (antic Paris).

Many actual facts and legends became indeed intertwined over the centuries!

We know that he was one of seven bishops sent to evangelize Gaul during the 3rd century AD.

We know that he was martyred under the reign of the Roman emperors Decius in 251AD or Valerian in 258AD.

Legend has it that Saint-Denis and his two companions, the priest Eleutherius and the deacon Rusticus, were captured by Roman soldiers while preaching in Northern France.

Jailed and tortured, they were sentenced to be beheaded on Montmartre Hill in front of the Temple of Mercury.

Saint-Denis, patron saint of Paris
Saint-Denis holding his head – St. Pierre de Montmartre Church

However, the soldiers in charge of their execution were too lazy to climb up the steep path and therefore executed the three priests on the hillside.

Once beheaded, Saint-Denis stood up.

He took his head in his hands and carried it to the small village of Catulliacum (present day Saint-Denis in the north of Paris).

Saint-Denis stopped walking and ‘died’ on the site where he wished to be buried.

Two centuries later Sainte-Geneviève erected a chapel on his grave.

We know for fact that in the 7th century the Frankish King Dagobert I founded an abbey on the site.

He also transferred the holy man’s relics to the Basilique St-Denis.

However, it is not really known where the relics were effectively kept after St-Denis’ execution.

That said, an ancient crypt containing three sarcophagi and several inscriptions were discovered in Montmartre during the 16th century.

The nuns of the Abbey of Montmartre immediately believed that this was the spot where Saint-Denis and his companions had been slaughtered (and buried!),  13 centuries earlier.

They built the Sanctum Martyrium Chapel over the crypt.

Legend of Dagobert and foundation of St-Denis Basilica

Dagobert reigned from 629AD to 639AD.

He was the descendant of the first French king, Clovis, who reigned from 481AD to 511AD and converted to Christianity after marrying Clotilde.

Saint-Denis Reliquary in Saint Denis Basilique
Saint-Denis Reliquary

A lovely legend relates how Dagobert chose the site where he founded the Abbey of St-Denis.

Young Dagobert decided to take revenge on his cruel tutor by cutting the man’s beard, while he was asleep.

Cutting a man’s hair was a serious offense in Frankish society, because it meant social degradation.

Learning this, his father Clotaire became furious and sent his men after him.

Dagobert fled to the chapel erected by Ste-Geneviève and took refuge on Saint-Denis’ grave.

He knew the saint would save him, because he remembered how a few years earlier the holy man had protected a stag he hunted.

Distressed and exhausted, the animal had indeed entered the little chapel and lied on the grave.

Dagobert’s hunting dogs stopped by the chapel entrance and refused to enter.

When Clotaire’s men approached the chapel, they were subject to the same spell!

They were indeed unable to set foot in the small building, where Dagobert had fallen asleep.

The young man was dreaming that Saint-Denis would protect him, if he replaced the modest chapel with a church.

Once forgiven by his father, Dagobert kept to his word; he started to build a magnificent basilica and an abbey that were completed a century later.

Dagobert was the first Merovingian king to be buried in St-Denis in 639AD.

His magnificent tomb, rebuilt in the 13th century on his original burial place, is a listed Historical Monument.

The benedictine Abbey of St-Denis became a major pilgrimage, and the French kings sought to be buried near Saint-Denis’ grave in order to acquire his eternal protection.

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